Originally published in Venture 2.2 (November 1957), pp. 8-10.
The great day has arrived. The enthusiasm of a few men of vision has been infectious. Thanks to the devoted efforts and generous donations of public spirited congregants the foundation stone of the Herbert Samuel Synagogue Centre has been laid and in the very near future our beautiful Synagogue will rejoice in a magnificent sister building worthy of its best traditions. Now is the time to examine in detail plans we have discussed so often to try to see a picture of the new Centre as it will be when it caters successfully to the varied needs of our members. The best way of doing this is to consider in turn the types of activity it is hoped will take place within its walls.
First, we are confident that the new centre will make a noteworthy contribution to the Jewish education, particularly adult education. Our synagogue already caters, of course, for the educational needs of our children and does so to the satisfaction of everyone concerned. The children are happy at their lessons and are finding their introduction into Hebrew learning an exhilarating experience. But Jewish education ought not to begin and end with the little ones. Judaism is a faith which appeals to the grown mind. Many of its teachings can only be appreciated fully by mature men and women who know at first hand life’s problems, its hopes and frustrations, its dignity and beauty, its pain and sweetness. It cannot be denied that many adults fight shy of any suggestion that they improve their knowledge of Judaism. There are many reasons for this, some of them cogent and not to be dismissed as the excuses invented by a guilty conscience. Some people are severely pressed for time. (Particularly is this true of a congregation such as ours in the heart of the busy metropolis, many of whose members of feeling with distinction positions of communal trust and responsibility with little and enough time for their own families and private concerns). Some are apprehensive that their attendance at study and discussion groups will expose the gaps in their Jewish knowledge. Others find it hard to break with it too-comfortable tradition that legitimate concern of the Synagogue is with prayer alone and that adult education hardly falls within its purview. But there is good reason to hope that when the Centre provides, as we intended to do, a wide range of classes, study groups and discussion circles, conducted in an interesting way by competent and tactful teachers, amid pleasant surroundings, that more and more people will discover how an increase of Jewish learning adds zest to Jewish life and opens up new vistas for those prepared to make the effort.
Years ago there lived in London the world-famous Hebrew writer and thinker Ahad Ha-am. In a letter addressed to Mr Bertram B. Benas and Rabbi Isaiah Rafalowich of Liverpool, this is acute observer of the Anglo-Jewish scene wrote the following:
‘For generations now the Orthodox and the Reformers in western countries have been fighting one another, without realizing, either of them, that the rights and ceremonies about which they argue our of no importance in comparison with far reaching and ruinous “reform” which has been introduced as though automatically with the consent of both sides–the shifting of the centre of Judaism from the Beth Ha-Midrash (House of Study) to the Synagogue. Prayer has become the essential and study subsidiary to it. But the heart of the Jewish people has always been in the Beth Ha-Midrash; there was the source from which they drew their strength and inspiration that enable them to overcome all difficulties and withstand all persecutions. If we want to go on living, we must restore the centre to the Beth Ha-Midrash, and make that once more the living source of Judaism.’
Even if his analysis is too drastic and one-sided Ahad Ha-am’s strictures are sufficiently near to the truth to make those concerned for the future of Judaism in our Community anxious for Jewish learning to be restored to its position of honour in Jewish life. We have the opportunity of doing something to bring about this aim in our Synagogue now that the new Centre is to be directed. Try to imagine a building near to London’s West End, its lights ablaze, its doors open invitingly night by night that the voice of Torah be heard. In one room people will delve into the intricacies of the Talmud or they will study the Bible and its message for our age or they will seek to fathom the profundities of Jewish philosophy and male their own the values enshrined in the Jewish moralistic literature. In another room classes will be conducted in modern Hebrew and the exciting new literature that is being produced in the modern State of Israel. In yet another room a discussion group will meet to try, in the light of Jewish teaching, to bring a little nearer the solution of many of our present-day complexities. There will be a finely equipped Jewish library of books and periodicals in English so that golden hours might be spent in the company of great Jewish mines.
Lord Samuel has written in Belief and Action:
‘A third criticism protests against religion being brought into the open air, and the crude light of day; it ought to be something half-lit, mysteriously sheltered. But this is to undervalue its native vigour. Religion need not be so delicate plant as many of those who tend it have thought. It can flourish in the wind and sun and rain, and grow more sturdy than when it is housed in mysteries. If creeds are too weak to face inquiry and discussion, are they strong enough to control conduct?’
Judaism is no mystery religion. The Torah was not given in a dark place, remark the Rabbis, but in the open desert for all to witness. What was the continuous activity of the Rabbis if not a tremendous search for the truth? Why the very word Midrash comes from a root meaning ‘to inquire’! And God willing the inquiry will continue in our new Centre as it continues in every part of the Jewish world where there is concern for the future of Judaism. We will there try to affirm that those grand old volumes into which the saints and scholars of Israel have poured their souls are not musty, forgotten tomes of no more than antiquarian interest but depositaries of divine wisdom from which the young can draw the poetry of Jewish existence and the questioning mind can learn to understand why the Jew has been prepared to suffer for his faith, so live by it and to die for it if needs be.
When the New West End Synagogue was built most of its members lived in the Bayswater-Kensington district and attended services regularly Sabbath by Sabbath. In those days, congregants knew each other and were able to feel that they were part of a Kehilla, a group of people with the same aims and aspirations helping and encouraging each other in furthering the ideals of the faith they held in common. Nowadays conditions are far different. Many of our members live at great distances from the Synagogue but would nonetheless refuse to transfer their loyalties to any other house of worship because of the strong ties which bind them to our congregation. All the more necessary it becomes for members to have periodic ‘get-togethers’ in a friendly atmosphere. We have in mind one or two social gatherings each year at which members can exchange views. Among the other amenities to be provided by the new Centre building will be a spacious hall, tastefully furnished, which will be ideal for this purpose. Here, too, new members will be welcomed into our midst and here dances will be organised particularly for the young men and women of the congregation. It has become a commonplace that unless adequate opportunities are given to Jewish young men and women to meet socially we cannot be surprised at the alarming increase of marriages outside the faith. Furthermore, the Members and Ministers of other congregations will be invited to the Centre. At present though the larger Synagogues belong to the United Synagogue each works in virtual isolation. The synagogue ideal would be immeasurably strengthened were there closer contact between like-minded congregations.
Once the social side of Synagogue life is properly appreciated there are many ways in which it can be fostered. Suggestions of value have already been advanced by congregants and we welcome further suggestions. One that will commend itself to the young married is a team of baby-sitters, drawn from the ranks of the younger congregants, who will be prepared to offer their services for a small fee to go towards some worthy cause. Many of our members have a great love of music and possess considerable musical talent. Others are artistically minded. Others are gifted writers. Why should the modern Synagogue neglect the arts? Why should it not be possible to produce at the Centre plays a Jewish interest? If these can be written by members so much the better. Why should we not have music recitals and discussions on Jewish music by and for those interested in music? Why should it not be possible for the new building to become a real ‘centre’ for many kinds of interesting experiments in Jewish cultural expression?
There will be, of course, excellent catering facilities in the new building. Among the uses to which these can be put is the provision of a Sunday morning breakfast during which a talk will be given by a distinguished speaker on some aspects of Jewish life and thought. These breakfasts ought to have a special appeal to the parents of children attending Hebrew Classes, who can bring their children to the Classes and enjoy the breakfast and talk while waiting for them.
A healthy mind in a healthy body is not only a Greek or Roman ideal. Judaism, too, knows of the importance of ‘perfection in Torah, perfection in bodily health.’ An energetic and far-seeing congregation will not think it incongruous to provide its young people with facilities for healthy exercise and sport. The basement of the new building will be specially equipped to be used for sport and recreation. In addition this basement will be a suitable place in which the Ladies Guild will be able to conduct bazaars and fêtes to help charitable organizations.
This leads us to the many charitable endeavours carried out under the inspiration of our Synagogue. Jews have always possessed a proud record in the field of benevolence and our congregation has never lacked men and women of generous heart and open hand to assist those in need.
Most of us have the firm conviction that the New West End Synagogue has much to contribute to the devotional life of Anglo-Jewry. It is in no boastful spirit (after all the beautiful, dignified edifice and the impressive order of service and form of prayer or not our achievements but the legacy of those who have gone before and have laboured well in the garden of the Lord) that we record how impressed visitors generally are by a traditional Jewish service at its best. We shall do our utmost to see that the splendid traditions are maintained in the future.
It is no secret that on the one hand you have in Anglo-Jewry the Reform services, full of quiet dignity and devotion but lacking the warmth and colour of the traditional service. And on the other hand you have the vital, enthusiastic Synagogues of the more Orthodox type whose services are frequently marred by the lack of proper reverence for the House of God. There is a pressing need on the Anglo-Jewish scene for the comparatively few Synagogues where every attempt is made to produce a happy blend of traditionalism and decorum. There is room for experimentation of the right kind with the traditional service to render it more meaningful. We are not afraid of innovations. We share the dynamic view of Jewish tradition rather than the static. The more congregants assist us by their frequent attendance and participation in our services the more we shall be able to contribute. As it has been said: ‘If you’re too busy to pray you are more busy than the Lord intended you to be’.
There will be a delightful small children’s Synagogue in the new building. This will be furnished as attractively as possible so that our boys and girls learn from their infancy to associate Judaism with warmth, light and joy. This small Synagogue will be used, too, for congregational prayer during the week, particularly during the winter months when it is difficult to heat a large synagogue. It will be open all day so that those who want to pause for a few minutes or to bring their problems to God may enter to commune with their hearts in private. It is a great pity that somehow we have grown accustomed to the idea that there is something un-Jewish about this. Certainly great stress is placed in our tradition on the value of congregational prayer, on the ‘minyan’. But historically, private prayer preceded the public prayer. The great prayers of the Bible are nearly all private prayers uttered by individuals when their need was great.
To sum up–our plans envisage the emergence of a Synagogue Centre which will be the focal point of all our Jewish activities. We fully recognise that not all our congregants have either the time or the inclination for intensive study or even for engaging in the other activities we have noted, with the exception of prayer. It is certainly not intended to badger anyone into full participation. We will respect the wishes of those of our congregants who want no more from the Synagogue than that it be a place of prayer and thanks to God on the great occasions of their lives and of the Jewish year. But we believe that these congregants are in a minority. The complaint of many is not that the Synagogue offers too much but that it offers too little. It is because we recognise the justice of the complaint that the new Centre is being brought into being. Whatever a congregant’s interests it is hoped that he will find room for furthering them in the light of Jewish teaching. And he will have the additional satisfaction of knowing that by his very presence and participation he is helping others, too, to further their sense of Jewish values.
The prophets dreamed of the day when all nations will go up to worship in the House of the God of Jacob. Why the God of Jacob, asked the Rabbis, and not the God of Abraham and Isaac? Because, they reply, Abraham worshipped God on the mountain, Isaac in the field. But Jacob was the first to call the place where he worshipped the House of God. There are some whose concepts of a house of worship is like the mountain, lofty, towering to the heights, mysterious, but remote and inaccessible. For others it is best compared to the field, a familiar, open place but one which provides little shelter for the bruised soul yearning for better things. The house of worship of the future, say the Rabbis, will be a house of God where men will feel at home because it speaks in the name of God to all their human needs and provides them with a means of adequately fulfilling their human personalities. It is our dream to erect such a house of God. Please help us to make the dream come true.